View 1 Item
Adobe Stock
University of Illinois-led research finds by age 6 girls believe boys are the smarter gender, though they do believe that girls work harder. Those attitudes may impact future education and choices, researchers warn.

Little girls may stereotype themselves out of education and career options, according to a study.

At age 5, both boys and girls saw themselves as smart. By age 6, when asked who was "brilliant," both boys and girls selected males, researchers found. Asked to choose between work the required brilliance and work that required effort, the girls sorted themselves into the hard-work tasks.

"We found this stereotyping at a very young age and we also found this association has immediate impact on activities boys and girls are interested in," said lead author Lin Bian, from the University of Illinois at Champaign, who co-authored the study with researchers from New York University and Princeton.

Published in the journal Science, the study concluded stereotypes that "associate high-level intellectual ability" with men more than women "discourage women's pursuit of many prestigious careers."

Bian noted some of the high-paying jobs at stake require high-level mental ability, such as physics or engineering. "It's important to know if young women and girls are held back from pursuing these jobs because of the stereotypes they are exposed to," she said. "If they don't learn early that they are capable and smart, then by the time they reach adulthood and are in a position to decide on a career, it could be hard for them to catch up."

Young stereotypes

For the first part of the research, children were read a story about someone who is "really, really smart," then asked to pick from pictures of two men and two women who they think that person is. At age 5, boys and girls were both inclined to select someone of their own gender. By age 6, both selected a male as the smart person.

Girls said that female students were more likely to get good grades than male students. But instead of associating that with intellectual ability, they credited hard work.

The researchers then offered children two games from which to choose. One, the children were told, is "for children who are really, really smart," while the other is for "children who try really, really hard." The boys most often picked the game for smart children, while girls picked the game for hard-working children — a choice Bian suggests reflects less confidence in intellectual skills.

Research from Brigham Young University last summer noted a similar potential chilling effect from gender stereotypes young children absorb. Little girls who embrace "princess culture" could sell themselves short when it comes to believing in their own capabilities. That study was published in the journal Child Development.

"Feminine behavior can be great on so many dimensions, like being kind and nurturing," lead author Sarah Coyne, an associate professor of human development in BYU's School of Family Life, told the Deseret News. "But girls can be limited by stereotypes in a number of ways. They can think they can't do well in math and science or they don't want a career."

The difference in the responses between age 5 and 6 in the recently published Science study was somewhat startling, but the researchers noted that children at early school ages begin to learn about the social world around them. "Identifying whether it's because of parents, schools, peers, media or something else — well, there are so many factors and we're failing to figure this out," said Bian.

Very young children have a "wonderful egocentrism," said clinical psychologist Stephanie O'Leary of Mount Kisco, New York, who was not involved in this research. "They see and identify with all this good stuff within themselves." But by first grade, they're more likely to see intellectual good stuff in the boys, not the girls, she added.

Bian said looking into the sources that lead to stereotyping is an important next step for the researchers.

Combatting stereotypes

Parents, teachers, coaches and others should be "mindful of the way we talk about intelligence and the way we communicate to our children," said O'Leary.

Parents have many opportunities to call attention to bright females. If a parent is reading a book to young children, he or she can comment on how clever or smart the writer is. It's not pitting men and women against each other, but rather noting that both genders are smart and capable.

People need to pay attention to their own unconscious biases, too, she said. It's not uncommon for folks to assume that a doctor or an attorney they haven't met is a man. It's easy to ask and then get it right when speaking to kids about that person.

Women should examine how they present themselves to children, said O'Leary. It's not about bragging, but it is important that children see women's intellect, reasoning skills and dedication. "It's bragging when you beat it to death. It's fact-checking when you say, 'I had a great idea and it helped us get everything we needed done.'"

8 comments on this story

Men also need to point out examples of bright, capable women. "It is very powerful for boys and girls to hear their fathers point out brilliance in women and to hear their fathers discuss why stereotyping is problematic," said O'Leary.

She said she was pleased that young girls identified with being hard workers in the study. That demonstrates their resilience, she said. "In the long haul, that's more protective than being brilliant. When you're choosing to do things (designed) for smart kids, if you fail, you could take it you're not smart. If hard workers fail, it just means they have to keep working. These girls have spitfire and tenacity."